A cash-starved Yorkshire police force has failed to put in place plans to cope with the potential multi-million pound cost of legal claims made by victims of the Rotherham child sex scandal, according to its auditors.
South Yorkshire Police is said to be exposed to a “significant financial risk” due to its failure to make arrangements for possible compensation pay-outs to the children who were failed in the town over 16 years.
Solicitors have sent 29 letters of claim to Rotherham council after the publication of the Alexis Jay report revealing the full scale of the abuse and expect to make a similar number against South Yorkshire Police.
David Greenwood of Yorkshire law firm Switalskis, which is representing victims, said the cost of compensation and legal costs to the force “could run into the multiple millions”.
An audit report by KMPG says the force had made proper arrangements to balance its books but has failed to “fully recognise the widespread nature of the historical CSE problem as outlined in the Jay report and providing insufficient support to the PCC to manage the consequential financial risks.”
The force’s own statement of accounts has added that there is also “significant uncertainty” over the total cost of the Hillsborough inquests and what proportion of the multi-million pound legal costs for former officers will be covered by the Government.
South Yorkshire Police, which has to save £49 million between 2011 and 2015, was heavily criticised in the Jay report alongside Rotherham council for failing to protect hundreds of vulnerable children. Since then it has commissioned an independent investigation into its handling of child abuse claims.
Bosses were already in the process of improving its services protecting vulnerable people, and were moving to a ‘platinum model’ at a cost of an extra £4.9 million a year at the request of police and crime commissioner (PCC) Shaun Wright, who has since resigned.
According to the external audit report: “The level of reserves is good but the potential legal claims from the CSE victims exposes the PCC’s finances to a significant financial risk which has still to be accounted for and addressed.
“While significant progress has been and continues to be made regarding prosecutions, substantial work remains to be done. Until this is done, the financial risk will remain.”
In its own accounts, the force says there is “still significant uncertainty” about how much it will have to pay to cover the legal costs of former officers being represented at the Hillsborough inquest.
The costs had reached £5.2m by the end of 2013/14, though KPMG’s report said a Home Office grant of £4.2 million was being discussed after a request for extra funding by Mr Wright.
According to KMPG, “no official confirmation has yet been received to confirm that it will be paid,” though the PCC’s office expects to get at least some funding support.
A spokesman for the Office of South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner said: “We do have confirmation from the Home Office that grant funding will be provided on certain terms. Discussions are still underway between the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and the Home Office in relation to these terms.”
Mr Greenwood, of Switalskis, said his firm had so far only sent one letter of claim to the force from victims of abuse in Rotherham, but planned to send up to 30 in the next month.
He said the cost of compensation for the force “could run into multi-millions” and added: “Then there are the legal costs of the whole thing, which will probably cost the same again.”
A spokeswoman for South Yorkshire Police said the force was “dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation”.
She said: “Since 2013, there has been a six-fold increase in staff dedicated to tackling child sexual exploitation, with 62 police officer investigators and a number of police staff and partner agencies dedicated to supporting ongoing investigations.
“The force continues to work with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner to ensure it is properly resourced to tackle child sexual exploitation. This includes funding to deal with both current and historic investigations and all financial costs associated with those investigations.
“The force has not yet received any compensation claims to date, without any compensation claims being received by the force it is impossible to know how much they may equate to. The force remains in dialogue with its insurers. The cost of the independent investigation is still being assessed.”
A spokesman for Rotherham council said the cost of compensation it would pay to victims would be covered by insurance.
Meanwhile, the investigator who tried to expose the town’s child sexual exploitation problems has said she passed on names of suspected abusers more than ten years ago, but the information was dismissed as “unhelpful” by a leading officer.
The unnamed Rotherham Council worker handed a 10-page dossier to South Yorkshire Police while investigating grooming gangs as part of a Home Office-funded project in Autumn 2001.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the researcher said the file detailed the people suspected of being abusers and even “one main suspect who had made several underage girls pregnant”.
Feedback on the file claimed the then-South Yorkshire Police district commander Christine Burbeary, who no longer works for the force, found the dossier “unhelpful”.